With the decline of resource-based industries and the rise of agribusiness, rural communities—formerly hubs of activity for family farmers, loggers and other well-paid, resource-based workers—are struggling to survive. When asked how the current recession is affecting his town, a city council member in my hometown of Dunsmuir, Calif., replied, "Current recession? When was the last recession over?"
When faced with a declining population, empty storefronts, crumbling infrastructure and a brain drain as young people race to leave town after high school, it is no wonder that the first solution for many small towns is, "Get a grant." Get a grant to attract some businesses. Get a grant to spruce up the downtown. Get a grant to fix the municipal water system. Get a grant to do something—anything—to save our town!
Unfortunately, grant acquisition procedures often involve outside consults, strategic planning results that may or may not reflect the wishes of the town, and lack of community-wide commitment to a process that is supposed to revitalize the town. Communities may see some progress resulting from these grant projects, but continuing success often depends upon outside infusions of money and expertise. So, they slowly fall by the wayside as resources are redirected elsewhere.
Locally initiated planning that includes key community leaders and organizations must be the first step in creating a bottom-up, community-based strategic plan that makes the best possible use of much-needed outside resources.
Kurt Wright, business consultant and trainer, wrote Breaking the Rules, a detailed overview of his philosophy and methods. His work may provide rural communities with a successful approach to revitalization. Wright's core principle—to start with what is already working—can be the basis for community strategic planning that will build enthusiasm and willingness to work collaboratively for a positive future.
Wright's landmark problem-solving success is based on five questions that examine what is right rather than the usual approach, which starts with what is wrong.
Modifying these questions for use in a community strategic planning process, the five questions are:
1. What is already working in your town?
The rationale for starting with this question is to redirect community thinking away from the inevitable, "What's not working?" The question is transformative. People start out suspicious and end the session with hope and enthusiasm, surprised at how many things about their town are working well.
2. What makes these things work?
Here is where the real job begins. When planning group members dig in together and assess why each thing that is working is successful, however small, they begin to build some strength behind the idea that the future of their town rests within the town rather than in some deus ex machina who will come in and save them. They begin to understand how to direct local existing resources to effect future change.
3. Looking three years into the future, what is ideally working?
During the visioning portion of the exercise, participants imagine themselves on a street corner in the middle of town, three years hence, and tell the story of what they see. Using the information they have gathered from answering the first two questions, they are able to posit the reasons why things are "ideally working." This takes the strengths they identified and connects them to actions, creating the positive future they envision.
4. What is missing?
This question helps participants fill in the gaps. "Money" as a final answer should not be allowed. The goal of this exercise is to help locals identify the small, simple, doable things that they can get started to bring the vision created in Question 3 to fruition. This process helps members move away from a feeling of helplessness that can only be corrected by an influx of cash. It will actually build community energy and enthusiasm, leading to better use of any cash that becomes available.
5. What resources do we need to respond to Question 4?
People will be surprised by how many resources come out of this exercise that have nothing to do with "getting a grant." They should be encouraged to identify local human capital and existing resources that will impact their vision.
In watching a small group of community thought leaders in Dunsmuir go through this process over the past two years, I have realized that success has occurred due to the small, simple, doable actions of a group of dedicated volunteers.
The agreed-upon vision that resulted from answers to Question 3 was seeing four successful new businesses occupying empty storefronts in our downtown historic district. To achieve this goal, members of the Revitalization Team took action. They contacted the regional Center for Economic Development for some education on business attraction and economic gardening. They created a web site, ComeHometoDunsmuir.com. They took up a collection at a meeting and had 1,000 postcards printed with a charming downtown image and an invitation to "Bring your business to Dunsmuir." They had a booth at every summer event, including the multiyear high school reunion.
Team members talked to their friends and neighbors about their projects and, in a town of fewer than 2,000 residents, there was a sense that something was changing. When team members learned about the success of small towns that filled their vacant store windows with works of local artists, they dedicated months to creating downtown galleries in empty storefronts.
A year and a half into the three-year revitalization process, they have welcomed four new downtown businesses, achieving their goal more than a year earlier than expected.
"This town has a good feel about it," was the reason given by one young entrepreneur to explain why he moved his business from a major metropolitan area to Dunsmuir.
The seeds for growing a positive future for any rural community live within the community itself. A planning process that accesses and facilitates local involvement, along with the dedication of local volunteer energy to accomplish small, simple, doable actions, can help to bring any small town back to the future.
Holley, June: "Transforming Your Regional Economy through Uncertainty and Surprise: Learning from Complexity Science, Network Theory and the Field," Nov. 2003, www.networkweaving.com.
Krebs, Valdis, and Holley, June: "Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving," 2002-2006, www.orgnet.com/BuildingNetworks.pdf.
Pew Partnership for Civic Change: "Voices of Rural America," Oct. 2000, www.pew-partnership.org/pdf/voices_of_rural_america.pdf.
Wright, Kurt: Breaking the Rules: Removing the Obstacles to Effortless High Performance, Boise, ID: CPM Publishing, 1998.
Keep up with what’s new and noteworthy at the St. Louis Fed. Sign up now to have this free monthly e-newsletter emailed to you.